PTSD affects drone operators too - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

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PTSD affects drone operators too

(Source: WAFF) (Source: WAFF)
(WAFF) -

The development of drones and unmanned aircraft come with the men and women to fly those systems. But these operators are not spared from the brutal affects war has on the mind and body.

When you think post-traumatic stress disorder, you may think about someone going through a horrific event like a car accident or a shooting. Many think about our troops in combat. But what about someone who sits in front of a screen and operates a drone?

Dr. Wayne Chappelle, the U.S. Air Force's surgeon general consultant in air medical clinical psychology, said the military is tracking operators who develop PTSD. He said the rate of PTSD or estimated prevalence rate is between four and five percent.

"Whether you're on the battlefield or off the battlefield, exposure to combat in it of itself seems to be the main trigger for PTSD symptomology,” Chappelle said.

Vincent Lewis flew unmanned aircraft for the Army in Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey. After 16 years, he was medically discharged for asthma and PTSD.

"When you're doing stuff, you just do it and once you're done you really don't think about it. It's just another day until later on, I think, when it really hits you. Where you really see and think about the things you were doing," said Lewis.

Lewis explained what parts of drone piloting gave him the highest levels of stress. He said not being able to help like he wanted was one of the main issues.

“Seeing what was happening on the ground and trying to give guys information, seeing what's going on around them but not really being able to get to them in time and seeing those guys get hit by other enemy forces," he said.

Before getting out of the military, he had moments of doubt. He said he had trouble talking about it and didn’t even want to write it down. And he had no one to process those moments with.

"It's almost like looking at a TV, but in actuality, it's real life,” said Lewis.

"And it becomes more of a personal thing. No one really says a whole lot except what happened at the end and how it was supposed to happen," he said.

Lewis said one of the biggest questions he asks himself now is if there was anything more that he could have done.

The military, and Air Force specifically, is catching on to this trend for drone operators. They are constantly working for a solution.

"The Air Force is imbedding specialty trained medical providers and psychologists within units themselves,” Chappelle said. “Because one of the most important things we do is to be able to identify those RPA operators early and then be able to provide them the care they need in order to restore their health and performance.”

Lewis said going to counseling, talking through what he saw and is dealing with now, along with meeting local veterans' groups like Bearded Warriors, is allowing him to make progress in his recovery.

Another unmanned aircraft operator spoke to WAFF about what he went through in his time flying the systems. Sean Naylor joined the Army in 1986 and did five deployments as an aircraft mechanic. In 2010, he was asked to serve as a UAV (drone) operator. He explained what it was like for him to be a part of the battle through a machine.

"Flying the UAV is very interesting. You play a much bigger role in the combat operations. The safety of soldiers on the ground and also success of their mission becomes a very important part of what you doing every day. We were doing middle of the night road scans. Calm and quiet in the center. Then found two gentlemen burying IEDs in the road. Once we saw wires and explosives they called in a strike. That has stuck with me quite a bit," said Naylor.

WAFF asked both Naylor and Lewis if they had a message for operators just like them dealing with PTSD.

“The message for PTSD is always to reach out. Simply a matter of reaching out to fellow brothers and sisters in arms or veterans,” said Naylor.

“If you’re having feelings or thoughts, or feel it’s not worthwhile, talk with others. Find resources, there are resources out there for us,” said Lewis.

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